Can you name the three things in the world that always make you happy? I can. In no particular order they are 1. The Goonies, 2. A burger at the Corner Bistro and 3. Joan Jett singing "Love is All Around" (the Mary Tyler Moore theme song) live. I have decided to add a fourth -- the Crescent City, the Big Easy, New Orleans, LA, or for short, NOLA. Since 2002 and that year's Acme Oyster Eating Contest I have been returning to New Orleans for the music, the food, the people, the madness of the quarter and the solitude of the Garden District. I owe much of my competitive eating career to Nola -- they have even named a street after me. Truthfully, the street was there first, but when in NOLA people call me "Con-Tie" instead of "Con-Tee." Nola has a special place in my heart as well as my stomach. I may not have changed much in the past decade, but NOLA has, however, it's indomitable spirit, it's celebration of life and death (A second line is simply the way I want to be remembered), it's red beans and rice on Monday, it's oysters and crawfish, the smell of night jasmine and even the stale beer dirty stench of Bourbon Street at five am... I love it all.
My standard travel schedule is to leave NYC at 3:33 am, giving me a half hour in the bars if I need a nip for the road. With New Orleans awaiting I simply nap instead of nip, knowing that spicy bean laden bloody marys and Abita beers are acceptable breakfast beverages. At 11 AM, I am in the warehouse district at Cochon Butcher eating Boudin (the pate of the sausage world), brussel sprouts, and head cheese along with a pecan beer. The day would unfold in a well traveled pattern that I have perfected over the years. There are two bars I drink in on Bourbon Street, but first I stop at the Acme Oyster House and give shucker Stormin Norman a hug. Norman shucked the 34 dozen oysters during the 2002 Super Bowl that I ate, setting a restaurant record, and changing my eating habits for life. I pop into the Jean Lafitte Old Absinthe House for NOLA's original cocktail -- the Sazerac. A Sazerac starts with an absinthe rinse, followed by a substantial pour of rye and pechauds' bitters (some places also add Angostura bitters too, but I am a traditionalist). A lemon rind follows in the glass because one could simply live on Sazeracs for weeks and it is important to avoid scurvy at all costs. The Sazerac is like a good short story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's starts like the morning's first sip of coffee or skinny dipping, an eye and liver opener. The middle makes the impossible happen, a feeling of both burning and melting at the same time, until the whisps of rye sublimate in one's mouth. The end might be the best part -- a lingering bitterness not dissimilar than when an attractive girl insults you, but winks at the same time.
My Sazerac starts in glass, but ends in plastic as New Orleans is the most civilized place to drink; one can walk into any bar with a drink and walk out of any bar with a drink, as long as it in in a plastic cup. And amazing, this has simply helped the booze business, not hurt it. I avoid Hurricanes, Hand Grenades, and other beverages that are literally named and aimed for one's gut, but it is hard to argue with the joy that is strolling the sunny streets with a beverage in one hand and a world of possibilities in the other.
I stop for my second sazerac at the Old Blacksmith Shoppe, a place that claims to be the oldest bar in America. Depsite the proliferation of electricity over the years, the place is darkest during the day, and does feel like an Alcoholic time machine. Two sazeracs and I usually switch to Abita beer, except for one other drink -- the frozen Irish Coffee at Molly's on Decateur which comes with coffee grinds intentionally sprinkle on the frothy foam of the greatest adult milkshake. Pre- and post-contest, my folks know to find me at Molly's and I finally saw Tera, the wonderful tattooed bartender make the Frozen Irish Coffee from scratch... it was like watching a cow be created from alcohol. I won't reveal the secret ingredients that go into the five-gallon container but it has more booze than I would have thought. It is the perfect beverage post competitive eating -- a digestive dairy delight.
On to the pro-eating and the Rouse's World Crawfish Eating Championship. Northerners have trouble understanding what mudbugs are (two people in NYC asked if I use crackers to open the crawfish shells). On a swamp tour years ago, I learned that crawfish are harvested three times a day at 3000 pounds each time. Rouse's is a supermarket chain, that seems more like entering your Grandmother's kitchen. The slogan is, "You're either local or you're not," and it's easy to become a local in New Orleans. Crawfish are a socially consumed food, families and folks, sit and eat for hours, sucking the heads for the spicy boil and then popping the meat of the tail into their maws. Suck, pinch, repeat. The contest, during French Quarter Fest at the Old US Mint, is ten minutes and as a debris food is weighed before and after. Each eater gets twenty pounds and discard dish. Backstage, I weigh five crawfish which comes to .2 ounces. I eat the tails and re-weigh the debris... still .2 ounces. Sonya "The Black Window" Thomas has won the previous three years by simply eating the entire tail, shell and all. Adrian "The Rabbit" Morgan, a Baton Rouge born eater is always close behind her, eating crawfish the way a Vegas dealer flips cards. This year would be no different as Sonya would eat two pounds for victory, and Adrian would eat 1.9 pounds for second. The numbers were about a pound off last year, due to the larger mudbugs. Despite my promise to refocus, I would finish fifth -- next to me Nasty Nate Biller would say that I looked slow. Despite my sloth like pace, Nate would draft off me for third place. The truth is, every eater is a winner in NOLA and with free Abita Purple Haze and an extra 40 pounds of crawfish for my fans, it's hard to feel competition as a necessary part of sport. As the distant strains of Kermit Ruffin's mischievous trumpet play, I look out into the crowd and realize that New Orleans is the world's hometown and it's great to be home -- it makes me happy.
Crazy Legs Conti can be reached at www.crazylegsconti.com unless he is in New Orleans and then leave messages for him at the Corporation Bar.
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